Over the past four years, an average of 15 inmates have died each year while incarcerated, according to the Utah Department of Corrections. The department began including organ-donor consent forms in the paperwork given to inmates during orientation at the end of 2011 after speaking with Eliason about his proposal.
"They liked the idea so much they implemented it anyway even though it did not become law," Eliason said.
Mike Haddon, Corrections deputy director, told the interim committee that inmates are being given donor forms as they go through medical and dental screenings upon arrival at the prison. He said that in the past, organ donation "was a consideration" for some inmates as they passed away.
But Eliason still wants it enshrined in statute so the policy isn't subject to the whims of changing administrations. He said he also plans to include jails in this year's draft legislation.
Laws governing organ donation by either living or deceased prison inmates a population that numbers about 2 million vary from state to state. Federal law prohibits compensating donors for organs, and that bars prisoners, like others, from benefiting in any way.
Nationwide, there are 116,000 people on the waiting list for organs; about 80 percent are waiting for a kidney, according to data from the United Network for Organ Sharing. There have been about 16,586 transplants so far this year, most using organs from deceased donors. In Utah, 705 people are on waiting lists for organs, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
A single healthy donor can provide up to 24 different organs and tissues from kidneys to skin to corneas that can help others, Eliason said.
"It is just akin to what we're doing with people's driver's licenses," he said.
Eliason said he took up the idea after hearing about a death-row inmate, whom he declined to identify, who wanted to be an organ donor but wasn't allowed to do so.
An Oregon death-row inmate launched a national debate in 2011 about the issue after he wrote an opinion column published by The New York Times about his wish to be an organ donor, something prohibited in all state prisons. Christian M. Longo, who was sentenced to death in 2003 for killing his wife and three children, also wrote a footnoted scholarly article and set up a website dedicated to organ donation by the "willful executed prisoner."
"My only wish was that I would be able to effect some good with my death that would be of benefit to someone besides me," Longo wrote in his paper. His fight became moot in November when Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber placed a moratorium on executions.
It's a moot issue for death-row inmates in most states that allow the death penalty since the methods of execution preclude being an organ donor something that could change as more of those states adopt a one-drug lethal injection.
In Utah, Corrections' policy bars death-row inmates from being organ donors, according to spokesman Steve Gehrke, but Eliason would like to change that. Utah currently uses a three-drug protocol to carry out executions by lethal injection; it allows execution by firing squad for inmates sentenced to death prior to 2004 the method chosen by three of the eight men now on death row.
According to an Associated Press story, at his request some of Gary Gilmore's organs including his kidneys, liver and eyes were harvested for possible transplant or study after his execution by firing squad on Jan. 17, 1977. It quoted a brief statement about the donations issued by the University of Utah medical center.
Ethicists, death-penalty opponents and both organ network organizations have objected to efforts to allow inmates, particularly those on death row, to become organ donors. Their arguments range from concerns about health risks given communicable diseases prevalent among prison populations, to inequities in the application of death sentences, and the potential for juries to impose more death sentences to increase the supply of organs.
Approximately 40 of the state's 6,909 inmates are known to be HIV positive, Gehrke said. Information on other communicable diseases was not available.
But Eliason said any organs taken from deceased inmates would be put through the same screening process as all donor organs. Donations are barred from any one who is HIV positive, has active cancer or has a systemic infection, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Gehrke said organ donation would generally apply to offenders who are already at a hospital receiving care and where death is foreseeable.
"In those cases, the hospital follows its normal processes and works in conjunction with the offender's family members regarding whether the organs should be donated," he said. "The form can help in case the family had not had those discussions with the offender…or in cases where there are no surviving family members present."
Giving and receiving
The Utah Department of Corrections last year decided to allow inmates to voluntarily fill out organ donor cards something a Utah lawmaker wants to require by statute as part of their paperwork upon arrival at the prison. It also allows medically needy inmates to receive transplants. In 2011, two inmates received bone marrow transplants as part of cancer treatment, for example, as a cost of $500,000 per inmate.